Damian Feeney offers a personal reflection on his journey from Roman Catholicism to Anglican Catholicism
Thank you for your welcome, and for this opportunity. And, of course, the title I have been given — Why I am a Catholic Anglican’ has done the work it was meant to do, and has got thoroughly under my skin. And, like anyone else wrestling with labels which are applied to themselves, there are times when my only answer fluctuates between ‘Because its true, of course, cant you see that?’ to ‘I have no earthly idea: Sometimes the premises upon which such titles and claims are made appear to be made of straw, and sometimes they appear to be all there is.
A short answer is, perhaps, that it provides me with a framework, a scaffolding which supports my poor attempts to be faithful to God. That in itself begs several other ‘how’ and ‘why questions, of course. And there is a difference in the nswers you will get, depending on how you have asked the question. If you ask me ‘Why are you a Catholic Anglican? I will hear ‘We know why you are an Anglican — why are you a Catholic one?’ If you ask me ‘why are you a Catholic Anglican?’ I will hear We know why you are a Catholic — why are you an Anglican?’ It’s a very different interrogation.
I am going to assume that you want a bit of both, because I am more Anglican than I realize, and seek the middle way between two mistakes. In answering the question — and how successfully I do that is for your judgement — I will draw on two principal sources. One is autobiographical, because we are all very much the products of our origins and upbringing — and the other is Blessed John Henry Newman, another Canterbury/Rome traveler, albeit in the opposite direction, who has been influential in my spiritual journey since I can remember. One or two other heroes may crop up along the way. What this cant be is a complete exposé of Catholic Doctrine, which will probably come as a total relief to you all.
Nature and nurture
To a degree, we are products of our nature, and our nurture. I was brought up in north-west Lancashire in a family of mixed heritage, at least in religious terms. My father’s side of the family were devout Roman Catholics, whilst my mother’s side were Wesleyan Methodists, with perhaps just a dash of Evensong. My mother was received into the Roman Catholic Church the night before she married my father, in 1954. I suppose we are products not only of our denomination and tradition, but also our generation.
The schools I went to were Roman Catholic: a local primary school, and then educated by the Christian Brothers in a Grammar School. Neither were particularly pleasant experiences, although throughout my experience of faith was generally positive. I even explored, briefly, the thought that I might be called to be a priest during those days. Later on I discovered that to be true. Before that recognition, though, a fair quantity of water had to flow under the bridge. I went to University in Durham, reading music, and spent a few years of relative spiritual instability indeed, for much of the time it could have been construed as chaotic. I worshipped everywhere, and nowhere. I was immensely grateful for a brilliant Roman Catholic Chaplain, Fr John James, who gave me time and space to talk, to reflect, to be critical in a fairly undergraduate kind of way. I also came to a real appreciation of the Society of Friends.
Contact with Anglicanism
I left Durham for Cheltenham, and stopped going to church. I had a teaching post, and I played rugby, hard as that maybe to imagine now. One teaching colleague asked me if I acted. I said that I did. Would I like to join a drama society? Certainly. Its based at our church. Fine. I was in, playing the part of Ferrovius in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. And I came into contact with a gentle, loving and attractive Christian community — of the Anglican variety. I, and my fiancée, became more and more involved, musically, liturgically, pastorally. As the time drew near for us to be married, we had come to the conclusion that we both wanted to value what we had received, as well as to present to our children (please God) a consistent and stable faith background. Talk about history repeating itself. I was received into the Church of England, while Fiona was confirmed, and we were married three weeks later.
A significant metaphor
The parish was very much in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, upholding beauty in worship, good preaching and the virtues of liturgical and corporate prayer very highly. It was a wonderful place, at a wonderful time, and we made friendships at the time which endure almost thirty years later. On reflection I realized that the journey I had undertaken, from Roman Catholicism to Anglican Catholicism, was significant for a number of reasons.
The first point of significance was that it was a journey at all. I have always, when forced to sit through The X Factor by my younger daughter its called ‘quality time’), detested those Cheryl Cole (or, should I say, Fernandez-Versini) moments when she says to some poor hapless soul of a contestant ‘Pet, you’ve been on a journey. However, journey is important. Pilgrimages are important because they call to mind the greater journey which is our life’s journey home — home, that is, to our true home in heaven. They are very much part of the Catholic way — to go to places where, as Eliot puts it ‘prayer has been valid’ Walsingham, Lourdes, Compostela, Fatima, Iona — the so-called ‘thin places where earth and heaven seen very close together. But the journeying is as much a thing as the arriving, and therefore the journey metaphor is significant for me too. And whilst you can chart a route, plot where you are going, load satnays and consult maps, the truth is that once you are committed to walking the way with Jesus Christ you have less and less control over where the journey goes.
I am a Catholic Anglican because I love the Lord Jesus. I am a Catholic Anglican because I believe and accept what is set forth in the Catholic creeds. I love Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and am devoted to her. I love the Saints, in all shapes and sizes. Particular favourites? Oh, go on then. Peter and Paul, Cecilia (that’s the music dealt with), Wilfrid, Cuthbert, Hilda and the saints ‘up north’, Benedict, Anselm, Augustine, Bernard, Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross.
I am, by profession, a music teacher. Music is at the core of my being. One of my most formative experiences as a young man was being taken to a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in Manchester. The music is Elgar’s, but the words are a saga poem by Blessed John Henry Newman, who is one of my heroes of the faith. If you want full on, blatant Edwardian Catholicism, then this is the piece for you. It contains my favourite hymn in the whole world — Praise to the Holiest in the Height — and another hymn, sung by Gerontius himself on his death bed as an affirmation of faith Firmly I Believe and Truly. Elgar sets it to a tune worthy of grand opera — faith is, after all, a dramatic thing and when I sing it in church I can’t help the feeling that our usual hymn tunes don’t do it justice. Perhaps these words sum up why I am a Catholic Anglican.
Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.
And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
Do to death, as he has died.
Simply to his grace and wholly
Light and life and strength belong,
And I love supremely, solely,
Him the holy, him the strong.
And I hold in veneration,
For the love of him alone,
Holy Church as his creation,
And her teachings as his own.
And I take with joy whatever
Now besets me, pain or fear,
And with a strong will I sever
All the ties which bind me here.
Adoration aye be given,
With and through the angelic host,
To the God of earth and heaven,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The penultimate verse is generally left out when we sing in church, a verse more appropriate to the death bed than the hymnal. Nevertheless, it is wonderful, so I include it. Perhaps, though, it is the verse before that which gives us most to think about, containing as it does the words:
And I hold in veneration
for the love of him alone,
holy Church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.
Food for thought
This prods, perhaps, at one of the points of distinction and difference which you may wish to dwell on. The teachings of Jesus, Newman implies, are as one with the teachings of the Church, a point of ultimate obedience and abandonment, a recognition that the Church, however frail, is still the body of Christ, and divinely inspired. In this context, you will be aware, Newman was referring to the Roman Catholic Church, which he had entered in 1845 at almost the precise mid-point in his life. Newman had, as you will know, started as an evangelical Anglican, serving his title at St Clement’s, here in Oxford. The Dream of Gerontius dates from 1865, twenty years after his crossing of the Tiber.
The question of the status of the Church’s teaching as inerrant is interesting from an Anglican perspective. I think we have a healthy disposition towards having our disagreements in public, which cannot always be said of Roman Catholicism in quite the same way (although the recent Synod on the Family was, to my mind, a healthy start). That said, we also end up bearing our scars in public as well, which is slightly less edifying. The question for a Catholic Anglican is the degree to which one can seek a drawing together of the hermeneutics and teachings of two ecclesial bodies which are so very different in character but it is worth saying that for the Catholic Anglican the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are profoundly significant. Perhaps I could sting you into later response by an oft quoted statement of uncertain origin (but it wasn’t me, honest) which goes something like ‘I am a Christian first, a Catholic second, and an Anglican third’. It is sweeping, but at least points to the truth that a Catholic Christian is what I am, and Anglicanism is what I am part of.
Role of Scripture
At this point it might be worth saying something about the role of Scripture in the life of the Catholic Anglican. Quite simply, to the Catholic Anglican Holy Scripture is the most Catholic collection of writings there is; authored by God, through the vehicle of human authors, teaching the truth. Not a religion of the book, but a religion of the Word, living and Incarnate. It is to be read in the light of the same Spirit who wrote it, while mindful of genre, history and context. Catholics are taught to attend to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, to the living tradition of the whole Church and to the whole analogy of faith.
My caveat in all of this is that I am not a Scripture scholar in the professional academic sense, and so in discussing this feel a little bit like agreeing to standing in a pit of lions and having a teeth-baring competition, so please be nice to me. As far as the centrality of scripture in the Catholic Tradition is concerned, I quote to you from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says it so much better than I do:
`Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too — pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place — is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture:
And, in a nutshell, `Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.
Further evidence of this view surfaces in the great schools of prayer which form very much part of the Catholic tradition — in my own personal experience, the Benedictine and Ignatian traditions of prayer stand tall in this regard. St Benedicts Rule emphasizes not only liturgical use of Scripture but also the practice of lectio divina, an example of a practice which has a usage far beyond the specific tradition. In Ignatian spirituality, with its focus on the prayer of the imagination, the role of Scripture narrative, especially the gospels, is vital and indispensable.
For the majority of Catholic Christians, exposure to Scripture principally takes the form of those passages of Scripture which form the Mass lectionary. The Ministry of the Word at a Sunday Mass consists of what you will find in the Common Worship Lectionary — readings from Old and New Testaments, a Psalm or Canticle, and a Gospel Reading. For daily celebrations of the Mass, there would be one reading and a psalm.
Beauty and reverence
This brings me neatly to one of the principal joys of Catholic Anglicanism the emphasis upon liturgy and worship of beauty and reverence, combining words, silence, music, colour, gesture and action. Those of you who have visited us for
OPTET services might have a sense of this, along with what might feel like a degree of excess (although I don’t think it is!). I would also want to add that while the Mass the Eucharist — the Lord’s Supper — the Holy Communion — call it what you will (what’s in a name?) is central to the life of the Catholic Christian, the importance of the daily round of Morning and Evening Prayer and the life of contemplative mental prayer cannot be underestimated — a bit like the three legs of a stool — for further on this particular (and very Anglican) tradition I refer you to the writings of Martin Thornton, and in particular his book Christian Proficiency. I quite like how similar that sounds to `Cycling Proficiency and it’s a good analogy — something you can only learn by doing it. We become proficient’ Christians, by practice, and by getting back on every time we fall off.
One of the regulating factors in liturgy, which I have come to appreciate over the last few years, is the way in which a correct balance is struck between personal preference and a right offering to God. The offering of Morning and Evening Prayer is simply that an offering to God. If there is a benefit to us, it is secondary to that first priority. The benefit comes in recognizing that through these offices we are oriented towards God’s good pleasure, the priority of worship, and the offering of praise and thanksgiving which asserts God’s dominion and our creaturehood. In its orientation the Eucharist is quite different. StJohn-Marie Vianney, another hero of the Catholic faith to me, once pointed this out in saying:
All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice of man to God; but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man:
John-Marie Vianney, by the way, is a hero because of his sheer holiness, his willingness to stay in an uncongenial place for his entire priestly life, his zeal for the Gospel, and for his never receiving any kind of ecclesiastical preferment until canonization. He also preached against dancing, and if people refused to give up dancing, he refused them absolution. He is my kind of saint.
Centrality of the Mass
John-Marie Vianney’s words point to the centrality of the Mass in the Catholic life. One of three legs of the stool, yes, but the solid foundation, identified completely with a Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church. Put simply, it is indispensable, a core characteristic of the Church. Of course that is so in diverse Christian theologies, but never more so than in Catholic faith and revelation. Dom Gregory Dix, formerly Prior of Nashdom and one of the Church’s great liturgical scholars, wrote this purple passage in his book The Shape of the Liturgy:
`Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy andbefore it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God’
For the Catholic Anglican, the Eucharist is central to the apostolic and missiological task in which the church participates. Jesus in the Eucharist sends us out, that we might assist in drawing all people to himself. And it is to incorporation, Baptism and Eucharistic fellowship that the church draws people to Jesus. That’s the core theology, I suppose, behind the impetus of the church plants in which I was involved in earlier years to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist, and to reveal him so present. The Eucharist is (among other things) an incredible moral witness, speaking of how our lives should be ordered and what our priorities might be.
I can’t let this close without mentioning a vital area of Catholic Anglican witness, and heroes the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth were inhabited by some extraordinary characters whose witness was formative for generations of priests and people: Charles Page Lowder (1820-80) who ministered in the slums at St Peter’s, London Docks. Alexander Heriot Mackonochie ssc (11 August 1825-14 December 1887) of St Alban’s Holborn, and Charles Marriott (1811-58) of Oriel College and one time principal of Chichester Theological College, my old college. I am privileged to bear his name in my full job title. Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is, quite simply, the most astonishing writer about mysticism and prayer. Perhaps the most significant of my heroes from this batch is Basil Jellicoe (1899-1935). His ministry in the slums of Somerstown, near Euston Station, was instrumental in slum clearances and in the provision of social housing which is still evident today. Not only that, but he raised the money to do it, and to fund other housing projects. He died of sheer overwork at 36 — zeal for housing consumed him but he had accomplished many times over what some accomplish in longer lives.
I suppose, in the end, I am a Catholic Anglican because it is where God has placed me. It is a privilege, and it is a cross, like all Christian discipleship, and I have little or no idea what God may have in store. I do know, however, that it won’t be dull.
This address vas given to students at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford,